We left the story last month (See here) at the point where the young Dahl had dared, during Captain Hardcastle's prep class, to attempt to borrow a nib from Dobson ...
Every boy stopped working and looked up. Captain Hardcastle's face
had gone from red to deep purple and he was twitching violently.
“Do you deny you were talking?” he shouted.
“No, sir, no, b-but ...”
“And do you deny you were trying to cheat? Do you deny you were asking Dobson for help with your work?”
“N-no, sir, I wasn't cheating.”
“Of course you were cheating! Why else, may I ask, would you be speaking to Dobson? I take it you were not inquiring after his health?”
It is worth reminding the reader once again of my age. I was not a self-possessed lad of fourteen. Nor was I twelve or even ten years old. I was nine and a half, and at that age one is ill equipped to tackle a grown-up man with flaming orange hair and a violent temper. One can do little else but stutter.
“I...I have broken my nib, sir,” I whispered. “I...I was asking
Dobson if he c-could lend me one, sir.”
“You are lying!” cried Captain Hardcastle, and there was triumph in his voice. “I always knew you were a liar! And a cheat as well!”
“All I w-wanted was a nib, sir.”
“I'd shut up it I were you!” thundered the voice on the dais. “You'll only get yourself into deeper trouble! I am giving you a Stripe!”
These were indeed words of doom. A Stripe. I am giving you a Stripe! All around, I could feel a kind of sympathy reaching out to me from every boy in the school, but nobody moved or made a sound.
Here I must explain the system of Stars and Stripes that we had at St Peter's. For exceptionally good work, you could be awarded a Quarter-Star, and a red dot was made with crayon beside your name on the noticeboard. If you got four Quarter-Stars, a red line was drawn through the four dots indicating that you had completed your Star.
However, for exceptionally poor work or bad behaviour, you were given a Stripe, and that automatically meant a thrashing from the Headmaster.
Every master had a book of Quarter-Stars and a book of Stripes, and these had to be filled in and signed and torn out exactly like cheques from a cheque book. The Quarter-Stars were pink, the Stripes were a fiendish, blue-green colour. The boy who received a Star or a Stripe would pocket it until the following morning after prayers, when the Headmaster would call upon anyone who had been given one or the other to 'come forward' in front of the whole school and hand it in. Stripes were considered so dreadful that they were not given very often. In any one week it was unusual for more than two or three boys to receive Stripes.
And now Captain Hardcastle was giving one to me.
“Come here,” he ordered.
I got up from my desk and walked to the dais. He already had his book of Stripes on the desk and was filling one out. He was using red ink, and along the line where it said 'Reason', he wrote, 'Talking In Prep, trying to cheat and lying'. He signed it and tore it out of the book. Then, taking plenty of time, he filled in the counterfoil. He picked up the terrible piece of green-blue paper and waved it in my direction but he didn't look up. I took it out of his hand and walked back to my desk. The eyes of the whole school followed my progress.
For the remainder of Prep I sat at my desk and did nothing. Having no nib, I was unable to write another word about “The Life' Story of a Penny”, but I was made to finish it the next afternoon instead of playing games.
The following morning, as soon as prayers were over, the Headmaster called for the Quarter-Stars and Stripes. I was the only boy to go up. The assistant masters were sitting on very upright chairs on either side of the Headmaster, and I caught a glimpse of Captain Hardcastle, arms folded across his chest, head twitching, the milky-blue eyes watching me intently, the look of triumph still glimmering on his face. I handed in my Stripe. The Headmaster took it and read the writing. “Come and see me in my study”, he said, “as soon as this is over.”
Five minutes later, walking on my toes and trembling terribly, I passed through the green baize door and entered the sacred precincts where the Headmaster lived.
I knocked on his study door. “Enter!”
I turned the knob and went into this large square room with bookshelves and easy chairs and the gigantic desk topped in red leather straddling the far corner. The Headmaster was sitting behind the desk holding my Stripe in his fingers. “What have you got to say for yourself?” he asked me, and the white shark's teeth flashed dangerously between his lips.
“I didn't lie, sir,” I said. “I promise I didn't. And I wasn't trying
“Captain Hardcastle says you were doing both,” the Headmaster said. “Are you calling Captain Hardcastle a liar?”
“No, sir. Oh no, sir.”
“I wouldn't if were you.”
“I had broken my nib, sir, and I was asking Dobson if he could lend me another.”
“That is not what Captain Hardcastle says. He says you were asking for help with your essay.”
“Oh no, sir, I wasn't. I was a long way away from Captain Hardcastle and I was only whispering. I don't think he could have heard what I said, sir.”
“So you are calling him a liar.”
“Oh no, sir! No, sir! I would never do that!”
It was impossible for me to win against the Headmaster. What I would like to have said was, “Yes, sir, if you really want to know, sir, I am calling Captain Hardcastle a liar because that's what he is!” but it was out of the question. I did, however, have one trump card left to play, or I thought I did.
“You could ask Dobson, sir,” I whispered.
“Ask Dobson?” he cried. “Why should I ask Dobson?”
“He would tell you what I said, sir.”
“Captain Hardcastle is an officer and a gentleman,” the Headmaster said. “He has told me what happened. I hardly think I want to go round asking some silly little boy if Captain Hardcastle is speaking the truth.”
I kept silent.
“For talking in Prep,” the Headmaster went on, “for trying to cheat and for lying, I am going to give you six strokes of the cane.” He rose from his desk and crossed over to the corner cupboard on the opposite side of the study. He reached up and took from the top of it three very thin yellow canes, each with the bent-over handle at one end. For a few seconds, he held them in his hands, examining them with some care, then he selected one and replace the other two on top of the cupboard.
“Bend over.” I was frightened of that cane. There is no small boy in the world who wouldn't be. It wasn't simply an instrument for beating you. It was a weapon for wounding. It lacerated the skin. It caused severe black and scarlet bruising that took three weeks to disappear, and all the time during those three weeks, you could feel your heart beating along the wounds.
I tried once more, my voice slightly hysterical now. “I didn't do it,
sir! I swear I'm telling the truth!”
“Be quiet and bend over! Over there! And touch your toes!”
Very slowly, I bent over. Then I shut my eyes and braced myself for the first stroke. Crack! It was like a rifle shot! With a very hard stroke of the cane on one's buttocks, the time-lag before you feel any pain is about four seconds.
Thus, the experienced caner will always pause between strokes to allow the agony to reach its peak.
So for a few seconds after the first crack I felt virtually nothing. Then suddenly came the frightful searing agonising unbearable burning across the buttocks, and as it reached its highest and most excruciating point the second crack came down. I clutched hold of my ankles as tight as I could and I bit into my lower lip. I was determined not to make a sound, for that would only give the executioner greater satisfaction.
Crack! Five seconds pause.
Crack! Another pause.
Crack! And another pause.
I was counting the strokes, and as the sixth one hit me, I knew I was going to survive in silence.
“That will do,” the voice behind me said.
I straightened up and clutched my backside as hard as I possibly could with both hands. This is always the instinctive and automatic reaction. The pain is so frightful you try to grab hold of it and tear it away, and the tighter you squeeze, the more it helps.
I did not look at the Headmaster as I hopped across the thick red carpet towards the door. The door was closed and nobody was about to open it for me, so for a couple of seconds I had to let go of my bottom with one hand to turn the door-knob. Then I was out and hopping around in the hallway of the private sanctum.
Directly across the hall from the Headmaster's study was the assistant masters' Common Room. They were all in there now waiting to spread out to their respective classrooms, but what I couldn't help noticing, even in my agony, was that this door was open.
Why was it open?
Had it been left that way on purpose so that they could all hear more clearly the sound of the cane from across the hall? Of course it had. And I felt quite sure that it was Captain Hardcastle who had opened it. I pictured him standing in there among his colleagues snorting with satisfaction at every stinging stroke.
Small boys can be very comradely when a member of their community has got into trouble, and even more so when they feel an injustice has been done. When I returned to the classroom, I was surrounded on all sides by sympathetic faces and voices, but one particular incident has always stayed with me.
A boy of my own age called Highton was so violently incensed by the
whole affair that he said to me before lunch that day, “You don't have a
father. I do. I am going to write to my father and tell him what has
happened and he'll do something about it.”
“He couldn't do anything,” I said.
“Oh yes he could,” Highton said. “And what's more he will. My father won't let them get away with this.”
“Where is he now?”
“He's in Greece,” Highton said. “In Athens. But that won't make any difference.” Then and there, little Highton sat down and wrote to the father he admired so much, but of course nothing came of it. It was nevertheless a touching and generous gesture from one small boy to another, and I have never forgotten it.